J.J. Abrams talks about a mystery magic box that his grandfather bought for him as a child from a magic shop. The box is covered in question marks. It’s contents unknown—likely some assortment of tricks, gadgets, and gizmos. Decades later, his mystery box remains unopened. As a writer and producer, Abrams draws inspiration from this mystery box to draw viewers more deeply into the narratives by intentionally withholding information to further entice and engage their imaginations. For him, mystery is intriguing, inspiring, and creates space for imagination and wonder.
Quite a few years ago, around the same time that heard this talk from J.J. Abrams I was at a friends apartment where we were playing some music together. After sharing part of a song that I wrote, I began to explain what the lyrics meant but he quickly stopped me saying, “Don’t explain it. I like not knowing. The mystery is better.” He went on to talk about how he finds things to be more powerful and thought-provoking when left unexplained. This opened my eyes to the evocative power of mystery.
I never used to enjoy poetry because I always thought you had to interpret it, correctly define the symbols, and know what the author was talking about. Instead of igniting my imagination and stirring my emotions, poetry just felt distant and cold because I felt like I wasn’t “getting it.” As I’ve learned to embrace mystery, however, I’ve learned to sit with things that I don’t understand and allow their distinctive ambiance to impact me. I remember reading Emily Dickinson’s comment, “If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry.” It was then I understood that poetry made me feel uncomfortable because I was forcing interpretation rather than just letting it take the top of my head off. I was trying to force poetry into my head but poetry wanted me to get out of my head. Poetry invites me into the question, not to answer it.
Explanation and interpretation can rob certain forms of their power to provoke and incite. The pregnant pause of mystery beckons one to lean in with anticipation and curiosity.
Hans-Georg Gadamer writes, “Questions always bring out the undetermined possibilities of a thing…” In a data driven society with tools, apps, information, and resources at our fingertips, it can be hard to appreciate such a profound posture of inquiry. There seems to be a frenzied madness to accumulate answers and to gather data, but what are the questions to which this frenzy is responding to? Are they questions even worth answering? Our ability to thoughtfully develop new questions, and reframe old ones, is intrinsically linked to the potential for innovation and new possibilities.
Edwin H. Friedman writes about this in his book A Failure of Nerve, “In the search for the solution to any problem, questions are always more important than answers because the way one frames the question, or the problem, already predetermines the range of answers one can conceive in response. (37) Most of the questions we ask people are limited in scope and possibility. (i.e. “What did you do this weekend? How is your family?”) They don’t initiate a story and their capacity for depth is pretty much predetermined. But ask someone, “What energizes you? What are you passionate about?” and now you are in for a treat! Now the possibilities are open. The stage is set for connection, story telling, and listening—but that’s the thing. You have to want to listen. You have to make time to listen.
I love being challenged by a good question. This is something that I have especially learned to embrace when meeting with my spiritual director. Sometimes I will share about something in which I feel completely stuck or lack clarity. My spiritual director almost always helps me find enough clarity to begin moving again. How? It’s not through giving his opinions, attempting to answer, or solve what I’ve expressed. He just asks me better questions. He practically never gives me advice. He rarely talks for more than 30 seconds at a time. For an hour, he listens to me and asks questions—yet I usually come away feeling like my mountains have become molehills and what was insurmountable an hour earlier is now a mere detour. It isn’t that dramatic every time, but his ability to compassionately listen and form thoughtful questions leads me to a place of rejuvenation.
Often times, I get stuck because I am on my own treadmill of thoughts and anxieties—asking myself the same questions over and over. Talking with my spiritual director is a way of giving myself some distance from this treadmill so that I can step back and reflect. Friedman writes, “Perpetually seeking new answers to established questions rather than reframing the basic question itself not only betrays lack of distance on the part of the searcher; it also prevents obtaining the distance necessary for being able even to think, much less go, in new directions. Seeking answers can be its own treadmill. Changing the question enables one to step off.” (38) Now, when I notice myself spinning my wheels I try to pay attention to what questions I am asking myself (are they the right questions?) before I spend too much time and energy grappling for answers.
In a class leading up to a cross-cultural trip to Egypt, my college professor often told us that asking good questions is more important than giving good answers to pre-existing ones. In fact, our final in the class was to write ten questions and we were graded on how well our questions dealt with the complexity of the subject matter. It was the most difficult final I ever had, but I also learned so much from formulating these questions—perhaps more than if I just regurgitated the various insights that I gleaned from the class by writing an essay.
Lastly, Jesus was someone who relied on questions, story telling, and mystery to change the hearts and minds of people—which is quite surprising really. If I were alive at the time, I can imagine myself thinking, “God incarnate! Finally, I can get some answers and bring some clarity to the mysteries of life!” But that would not have been the case. You would think this would have been a great opportunity for Jesus to finally bring clarity to big questions and finally spell everything out for the generations to come, prevent all doctrinal disputes, bring some clarification to theodicy… but he doesn’t. When he speaks, he mostly tells stories and parables whose meanings are often unclear and elusive. When people ask him questions he often responds with another question of his own, or tells a story that sort of loosely addresses the question—which seem to evoke even more questions.
There are probably lots of reasons for this, but I think the simplest one is that Jesus wanted to draw people into a larger meta-narrative. Had he simply laid things out and responded to the direct questions he received, he would have likely entered into the rhetoric of legalism that permeated the religious and cultural landscape. By telling parables and asking questions, Jesus disoriented people—he reframed old questions and started asking ones that they weren’t asking. Instead of clearly explaining things directly, he relied on parables. Parables on which you had to spend some time thinking about. You had to enter into them rather than treat them as a form of knowledge to be applied to one argument or the other. Jesus’ speech was primarily an invitation to, “Follow me.”
Kenneth Bailey writes, “Jesus was a metaphorical theologian. That is, his primary method of creating meaning was through metaphor, simile, parable and dramatic action rather than through logic and reasoning. He created meaning like a dramatist and a poet rather than like a philosopher.” (279) We often want black and white facts so we can clearly document them in our “book of rules and right opinions” but Jesus is inviting us into a different way of being in the world. Bailey continues, “A parable is an extended metaphor and as such it is not a delivery system for an idea but a house in which the reader/listener is invited to take up residence.” (280) Jesus seemed to be more concerned with calling us into compassion and love than he was with updating the “book of rules and right opinions.” He spent just about 3 years in ministry. The fact that he used parables and questions as one of his primary ways to talk about the Kingdom of God is worth pondering.
So is mystery more important than knowledge?
I think one’s ability to live in the mystery and to ask better questions is what leads to wisdom and knowledge. That subsequent wisdom and knowledge manifests itself in being able to ask better questions and tell better stories—which provokes other people to ask better questions and tell better stories. So… I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
Learning to embrace mystery and to ask better questions can be profound catalysts for growth and innovation. How can you further embrace mystery? What questions aren’t you asking?
Here is J.J. Abram’s full TED talk on the mystery box:
Photo credit: Lance Baker [Loc.] Waterloo Recreation Area, MI